Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Galatians 3:26-28
Jonathan Myrick Daniels
“I sing a saint’s song”
I sing a saint’s song today. In the Episcopal Church we remember people whose life in Christ inspires our own Jesus-journey. We call these people “saints,” not because they were perfect Christians, but because we see in their lives a profound witness to our faith.
We don’t usually sing a saint’s song on a Sunday; that is, we don’t usually celebrate the life of a saint on a Sunday. However, our Bishop has asked us to remember today and reflect on the life of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a white Episcopal seminary student who was killed in Haynesville, Alabama, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Daniels died while protecting a 17-year-old black teenager, Ruby Sales, from a shotgun blast meant for her. As our Bishop noted, “Jonathan is one of only two Americans enshrined as modern martyrs in Canterbury Cathedral in England, the other being Dr. Martin Luther King, who himself praised Daniels’ act as ‘one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry.’” This month marks the 50th anniversary of Jonathan’s death; were he alive today he would be 76 years old.
As I looked at our lessons for today, at first I didn’t understand how they fit together. The lessons commemorating saints are chosen to shine light on either who that person was, or what they did, that we want to instruct us. So why these lessons?
We have the Magnificat for today’s gospel reading because this lesson was crucial in Jonathan’s call story. After MLK asked clergy to come to Selma, Alabama, to participate in the civil rights march there, Jonathan thought he would be too inconvenienced to go. He had decided to pass the invitation by when he heard THIS passage read: Mary’s response to being called by God to bear God’s Son. Talk about an inconvenience! What struck Jonathan about this passage was the phrase, “he has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in their thoughts of their hearts.” The strength of God’s arm convinced Jonathan to put aside his own pride and convenience to help lift up those whom pride and greed had oppressed.
The gospel lesson is not where MY heart landed today, though. God’s arm, right down to his index finger, pointed me at the last verses of our epistle lesson:
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Here the apostle Paul made the case that when we accept Christ, our baptism makes us all one family, all equal, breaking down all barriers we humans erect to push ourselves up by pushing other down.
Irene Zimmerman, in her book about these verses from Galatians called
Women Un-Bent, wrote:
a baby’s cry
of every creed,
the rubbled walls
Finding every face
Louise Williams, a Lutheran deacon, made the case 15 years ago that our job as Christians is to remove the rubble of racism and of every other -ism. Christ broke down the walls between us, as Paul says, but the rubble of our sin keeps the playing fields from being equal.
Today, 50 years after the martyrdom of Jonathan Daniels and 15 years after Williams’ words, our job of clearing the rubble—our job of being one with all people in the name of Christ—has gotten bigger, rather than smaller.
In the past year, I’ve seen unarmed black men and children shot and killed by the people who are supposed to protect them. And I have sat idly by, feeling impotent to respond. In the past year, a black woman here in Alexandria was spit upon just for walking by some middle school students. And I sat idly silent, not recognizing the spit as the material that walls are built of, sin itself. In the past year, I’ve heard Southerners and Northerners respond in their various ways to the “take down the flag” rallying cries as if: (ONE), racism is confined to the South, or (TWO), taking down a flag will cure racism. Flags are merely symbols of the walls we once built and the rubble we refuse to clear.
Today’s walls are more subtle than slavery or flags or pride in our sinful heritage. Today’s walls are built on ways to enrich ourselves at the expense of others. But that’s a sermon for another day. Today, in the life and selfless death of Jonathan Daniels—today, when we sing a saint’s song—we understand that we CAN do something about racism. Jonathan showed us that the first step is PRESENCE: showing up in awkward places, just like Jesus did. And once we’ve shown up, the second step is RELATIONSHIP. With relationship comes understanding, and understanding tolerance, and tolerance acceptance.
The whole point of naming Jonathan—or anyone else—a saint, though, is to remind ourselves that we are supposed to be saints, too. I bet you know how to sing a saint’s song:
They loved their Lord so dear, so dear,
and his love made them strong;
and they followed the right for Jesus’ sake
the whole of their good lives long.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
and one was a shepherdess on the green:
they were all of them saints of God, and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.